Demonstrating Relevance in Chemistry

By Sarah Paquette on October 8, 2015

If you are anything like me, you approach the upstart of each academic year with hopes of inspiring students to become passionate about learning. New ideas gathered from professional development classes, academic journals, and summer journeys have always served as the mainstay for constructing intrigue among my students. It wasn’t until this summer, though, that I realized this strategy was limiting them to isolated snapshots of learning.

In July, I was fortunate enough to meet with the board of AACT; a compilation of people driven to develop resources and a networking system for teachers of chemistry which includes all K-12 science teachers. And just like that, my network grew. My new AACT colleagues led me to my local section of ACS. After making initial contact, I realized that this local section was thirsty for teachers in the community to participate at ACS sponsored events. I am always game for new endeavors, so I recruited a healthy set of middle school student volunteers, and we set off to turn local kids on to chemistry at our first event. Besides the enormous sense of fulfillment we all had by participating, we walked away with an “aha” moment in our pockets.

I thought my long-running strategy for constructing intrigue worked until I shared that day with the local ACS chapter. I realized my strategy left students unmotivated and unconnected. Even with the implementation of new ideas carried over from summer, my students still ask, “Why are we doing this? Why do I need to know this?” When students don’t see the connection between the content and activities of their classes and their future lives, they question what’s happening and what we, as teachers, ask them to do. It is an unhealthy perspective if we want to keep students both connected and motivated.

This is where the “aha” moment comes in. The children we worked with at the ACS event were exposed to a variety of careers involving chemistry. They got a glimpse of how chemistry is used in the real world, and they lit up. If we want to keep students motivated, we need to help them see the relevance of their learning. We need them to see how what they do in the classroom connects to the real world. Luckily, there are numerous venues for this. The AACT website and your local section of ACS is a terrific place to start. Other venues for building connections beyond the walls of your labs and classrooms are right in your community.

I began to reach out to local companies and, before long, I had an array of community professionals eager to visit with our students. Last week, I brought all of them to our campus for a career fair. Students in pre-K through eighth grade met with everyone from special effects artists to water quality control specialists to pharmacists. Although exhibitors spoke to all facets of STEM, they all shared ways they use chemistry in their careers.

It has been a week since the launch of our career fair, and the campus is still buzzing. In the midst of this buzz, I am able to stand back, scratch my head, and realize that the “aha” morphed into something grand. Not only did teachers and students at elementary and middle levels pull away from the notion that chemists are untouchable, white-coated scientists mixing strange liquids in a laboratory, but they understand the importance of relevance. Our community of students will no longer ask, “Why do I need to know this?” if we continue to show them the relevance of their learning. Life is good that way.

If you are interested in finding out more about networking through AACT, your local ACS section, or community professionals, I would be happy to help you get started. I can be reached at

Sarah is the Science Director for The Wood Acres School in Marietta, Georgia. She also serves as Middle School Ambassador for AACT.